Category Archives: Norman Nagel

Ceremonial: Real Growth Comes Only By Inches

Concerning ceremony in the service—the sign of the cross, kneeling, censing, and the like—how does one keep these things from calling attention to one’s self rather than to the gospel? When the servants of the liturgy come out into the chancel, they kneel at the prayer desk. With that they are drawing people into what they’re to be there for. If they came out and prostrated themselves in front of the altar, that would say something good and true and honoring God, but the rest of us would have forgotten what we were there for and would say “Well, why on earth is he doing that?” or “That’s a bit much, isn’t it?”

Growth comes by inches. You need to recognize that we are within “the mutual conversation of the brethren” [SA III, IV]. We live within this tradition, and with its treasures we are then equipped for helping one another to recognize what is growing and what is in the way of the gospel. So, when we go into chapel and there are some who recall their baptisms with the sign of the cross as the Small Catechism bids us to, and some don’t, and some sit and pray and some kneel and pray—that’s something to be rejoicing about!

That’s the extraordinary thing about the way the apostle deals with those who are so hip off into tongues. He doesn’t stand at the door and frisk the tongues out of them. He sort of lets them go on having tongues in the liturgy. He doesn’t knock tongues. He just feeds them more Jesus. The more Jesus goes in, the more the tongues get pushed to the fringe. And he indicates that priority by putting tongues at the bottom of the list [1 Cor 12:20]. He doesn’t slice them off, but there is a direction there.

And so, when you come to a congregation whose liturgical life—that is, the way in which they have been given the gifts of our Lord and the means of grace—has been pretty impoverished, you don’t come out and say, “Hey, we got to do something about this liturgy!” You first of all preach a few years of Jesus into them, and then they come to know what they’re there for and that he always has more to be giving them.

The legalism which I spoke of is our greatest danger. It is indicated when people “come on strong” with doing this or that as a great, big liturgical advance. But the gospel works by way of drawing people into the liturgy so that they say, “Wow, isn’t this great! More than I ever suspected!” Real growth comes only by inches.

And so when we go into chapel, and there’s a great hubbub of chatter, I have sometimes felt like arising and saying, “Shut up, you lot! Don’t you know what we’re here for?” We may serve our brethren better if we are at our prayers, and by them, invite and draw and pull others into the quietness coram Deo. That is the appropriate way of being before the Lord and his having his say.

Dr. Norman Nagel, “Whose Liturgy Is It?” Logia, April, 1993


The Holy Innocents, Martyrs – Matthew 2:13-18

With thanks to The Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel for much of what follows. Soli Deo Gloria!

Amid all the joy of Christmas, there is a reality check today. Not long after the birth of Jesus according to the flesh, King Herod trembles for his throne. He has heard of a pretender king named Jesus somewhere in Bethlehem. The way you deal with a pretender king is to kill him. Since you know he’s out there somewhere, but you don’t know exactly where, you might as well cover all your bases. Herod sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.

These children murdered by Herod were the first to lose their lives for Mary’s baby. The church has sung of them for more than 1,500 years as “sweet flowerets of the martyr band”, as we did in the Chief Hymn. We have been so calloused by the statistics of death pouring from Chicago, Saint Louis, and other places, that we don’t think much about this incident at all. Bethlehem was a small town. There probably weren’t too many male babies under two years old. Some historians have already begun to rehabilitate Herod by saying he is innocent of the murder of the Innocents.

Each mother in Bethlehem bore the whole weight of the loss of her child that she loved. If you’ve been to a wake of an infant or a young child, you know the weight of the loss. Perhaps you have borne that weight yourself. You walk through the receiving line, offer your condolences, and leave. You might think of the family from time to time, but their loss doesn’t affect you as if it was your loss. Tears are not enough for them. Tears are not enough for the Holy Innocents either.

There’s no point to commemorate the Holy Innocents if we merely feel sorry for the children and the parents. There’s something far more sinister at work here. You see this clearly with King Herod. Herod loved Herod. He wanted to be big and powerful. He would stop at nothing to protect his livelihood, even if it meant killing innocent children.

See yourself in King Herod. You put yourself first. Everyone else comes second. Herod has the power to subordinate people to himself. Most sinners don’t have that much power. Yet the basic principle of sin remains the same, though its expression may be limited. When people get in our way, we may not have Herod’s sword, but we do know how to get rid of them.

Granted you may not be King Herod, but you certainly are as hideous a sinner as he was. If sin is only what hurts my neighbor, then it’s not really a problem. I can do what I want as long as others aren’t hurt. That’s the way of the world these days. That’s also pure rebellion against God because it excludes God. We become god instead. You can’t push almighty God like that and get away with it.

When Herod killed those children, he was doing fearful damage to them, to their parents, to himself, and toward God. In each baby that Herod killed, he was guilty of killing Jesus. Herod intended to get rid of Jesus. He killed many more children than necessary. Therefore Herod is guilty of doing away with creatures of God. So he does away with God by doing away with them. Consider also that God is born a man in Bethlehem. God became each one of them and of us. After Jesus takes on flesh it is clear that to harm or damage any person is to harm and damage Jesus. Because He became each one of us, what we do to one another is done to Him.

So why doesn’t God put a stop to it? Why not run interference on Herod and not allow such a travesty? If God is an almighty and loving God, why did He let those babies perish by the sword of Herod? Why does He let innocent children today be slaughtered in their mother’s womb not only in our country, but all over the world?

What happened in a stable in Bethlehem gives the answer. God could have come with a vulgar display of power and slain Herod and all like him. But if he slaughters everyone prepared to put themselves first, there wouldn’t be one of us left. God comes in the way of love. God comes in the way of knowing that we are not made better by force. Force deals with the outside of a person. When God came to save us from sin, He used love instead of force. He used love that brought Him to a stable and to a cross.

Jesus did not put Himself first. He was there for us. His whole life was love, a love that fulfilled the will of God. He lived the life expected of us. He died the death that was coming to us for our sin. Sin is overthrown and answered for in Jesus. In Him alone is there victory over sin.

God could have done away with sin by a proclamation from on high, or even by brute force. Instead He sends His Son to suffer and die for sin. He sends His Son on a journey to Egypt to flee a mass murderer wanting to keep his earthly throne. The Child Jesus returns from Egypt to Nazareth, grows up like any other child except without sin, and begins His ministry to pay for your sin and rise triumphant over death and hell.

Remember those Holy Innocents as you bask in the Savior’s birth. Jesus died for them as well, for they were sinners in need of a Savior as you are. The murdered children of Bethlehem proclaim Jesus is Lord with their blood. Where there is blood, there is life. Because Jesus lives, you live, even if you never shed blood for Him. They, and you, are witnesses that God has arrived to put an end to death forever. Believe it for Jesus’ sake.


The Christian Life Is Shaped by Christ’s Love

The Christian life is shaped by the giving love of Christ and in the Scripture we have his bidding and descriptions of that shape. We would please him. Yet in nothing of our achievements, in no factor of us, do we place our final reliance. That is in his body and blood given and shed for us, in our Baptism, and in his forgiving and life-giving word of the Gospel which does not merely tell but bestows what it says. This is all from him and as sure as he is sure. There is nothing anterior to him which makes him sure. At no point may we insert some factor of ourselves as decisive or guaranteeing. Our competence does not rise above the ability to reject him. He suffers himself to be rejected. His saving way is the gracious giving way which is the way of his Spirit with the means of grace. Outside the means of grace his working with his power is irresistible. He makes no one alive as his forgiven child by use of his irresistible power. From creation and our own faculties we cannot know God as Savior. From these we can at most know him as powerful and just. Only in Christ and his cross do we know the heart of God toward us. The most incredible thing is that God should love us, and love us so much as to go through Calvary for us.

Here is a love beyond the limits of our understanding. We cannot explain it. It derives solely from the heart of God before time and beyond time. From the cross I know God thus loves me. That redeeming love is not only for me or a limited number of men.

– Norman Nagel, “The Gospel Is What Lutherans Care About”

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For You, From Him

Calvary is for you, from Him, a gift. Blessed are those who are given to. They are “the poor in spirit” of the first Beatitude. If there is any hope of deliverance, it can only come from God. The poor in spirit wait on the Lord. As He gives, they are given to. His giving to them is not blocked or hindered by what they h ave crammed together and would use for bargaining. “God gives into empty hands,” says Augustine, not into hands full of what we would boast of before God. There is no room for the gifts to be given into. Sometimes, with drastic mercy, our Father empties our hands so there may be room for His gifts. Blessed are those who are given to by God. Blessed are they who receive their death as a gift from His hands. Nothing is outside His hands. Despite the pain and perplexity of any way of dying, we are never outside His hands, and within His hands and from His hands our deaths are a gift by way of which He brings us to the fullness of His promises. “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

In the Gospel this word blessed is always in relation to Jesus. It rings with gladness, as is pointed to by the translation that says, “Happy are those who know their need of God.” But happiness is often something so fleeting or shallow, and here is something from our Lord, a lively, joyful gift for all our living and all our dying. Not spoonfuls, not bucketfuls, but the “river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Revelation 22:1). “And of His fulness have all we received, and grace for grace” (John 1:16). You were “buried with Him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised Him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12). You who were dead in sin God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our sins, having blotted out the charges of the Law against us. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross. “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4).

– Norman Nagel, Sermon for All Saints Day (Matthew 5:1-12), from Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel, page 317.

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Jesus Just Bloody Well Died

In Noel Coward’s play This Happy Breed, a man’s son is killed in the war and his friends try to help him with pretense talk and euphemisms for death. Out of the emptiness of his heart, he finally cries, “He didn’t pass on, pass out, or pass over; he just bloody well died.” Such honesty can crumble a man. His son was all that mattered to him. What is the point of going on living when the one most precious in all the world has died? Such grief is possible only when we know that life is to have a point, meaning, and worth, but you cannot read that looking into a grave. This we have to face, yet death is a fact that, for all its finality, is not the final fact.

You have not faced death fully unless you have faced the death on Calvary. Jesus was, in fact, a good man. Two bad men were dying along with Him. One of them acknowledged the truth, “We have it coming to us, but not this one.” Jesus was different, yet He was on the center cross, dying along with them. He was not guilty. He cries, “My God, My god, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). That is ultimate death, the forsakenness of God. The death of no more brain waves, breath, or heartbeat has its final weight not in the nullification of any worth, meaning, or happiness that we may have known or hoped for, but in the fact that we are accountable for our lives. This fact is acknowledged also by those who deny God, for they would still justify themselves, claim some meaning, worth, or at least a little happiness, and make a case for themselves.

The greater the insistences, the greater the uncertainty, for we do not do the final judging. Who does? Today’s Epistle answers, “God and the Lamb.” Which of the two will be your judge? God? What God? The of our God talk, of our construction or definition? If you insist, that kind of God will be your judge before whom you make your case. Yet they are not separate; there is one throne, the throne of God and the Lamb. “And they shall see His face; and His name shall be in their foreheads” (Revelation 22:4). On your forehead? Yes, for His name was put on you with the water of Baptism, as we confess with the cross put on your forehead and on your heart, the cross of the Lamb who was slain, the Lamb who bore the sins of the world, the Lamb who bore your sins for you in your place and was forsaken of God, where your sins put you but where He was for you in your place.

When Jesus cries, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” have God and the Lamb come apart, opposite each other? Yes, for the Lamb is where we are, opposite God, in our place as sinners. He bears our punishment of sin, the forsakenness of God. Anyone bearing his or her own sin is finally lost, but not Jesus. He is bearing not His own sin, but ours; He is not opposite God, but doing the saving will of the Father. He won’t let go of us, and He won’t let me let go of God. Out of the ultimate darkness of ultimate death comes the cry, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Jesus is through. He has done it. Then He goes through the little death also. The one who was crucified, the Lamb who was slain, is the risen one who sits on “the throne of God and of the Lamb (Revelation 22:3). From that throne God is for us as the Lamb is for us, no other God for us but as He is for us in the Lamb.

– Dr. Norman Nagel, Sermon for All Saints Day (Matthew 5:1-12) from Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel, pages 314-315.

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Norman Nagel and The Specific Locatedness of the Means

As Doctor Luther says, “The Gospel is not Christ.” The Gospel is the proclamation of Christ. The proclamation of Christ is the proclamation of the cross, the proclamation of the cross for you. Thus the delivery of the cross and with it all that was there achieved for you that day long ago. We are not back there. Nor need we attempt to get back there with some sort of getting contemporary with it.

Our Lord is not back there today, but here, where He is having His words spoken, the words that deliver Him. Doctor Luther said if you want your sins forgiven, don’t go to Calvary. There forgiveness was won for you, but there it is not given out. You go to the Lord’s Supper. There forgiveness is not won for you, but there it is given out. The Lord’s Supper has always a specific place and time. For there to be a delivery to us, it cannot be otherwise. We go on only as we are located at a particular place and time. The Lord has appointed the place and time for the delivery of His gifts, means of grace, externum verbum. And so gifts, that is, from Him to you by way of located words, water, wine, and bread.

Sermon for Holy Cross Day, 1992

The Rock Way Is the Cross Way

The rock way is the cross way. That is the way of victory and liberation. The giving way of love. Anyone who tries to serve oneself, make oneself big and secure, is done for. The way of life is only the Christ-given life. No matter how much money we may make, no matter how big we may make ourselves or defend ourselves against God in the God spot we have taken over, we are lost, for we have blocked and destroyed our lives in which the living flow is outward, the giving way, the longing way, all the way, always on, forward, without termination. Sin offers terminations. “At this level, this size, you will be able to say, ‘I have made it. I have what I want.'” The offer is a lie, the opposite of life, the termination is death. Jesus rescues us from termination, from the mortal terminations, the levels, the size of self or achievement by which we would secure ourselves against every threat – even the threat of God, for this is deception, the no to life, with termination death.

As Jesus entered Peter’s home and work and brought with Him opportunities to serve, so He enters Peter’s death, the death of us all that we determine with our no to love, to live, to God. The prison of our mortal constructions, our ways of figuring things out, our ways of making ourselves big, defensed, and secure, our termination, our death. He enters them all. Jesus dies our death for us, the death that terminates the loving, giving life that flows from generous God. He bears our separation from God. Jesus suffers our hell, but hell and death cannot hold Him, for He never said yes to them. He did not sin. The sinless one takes what was coming to us by our sin. Jesus takes sin’s claim on us and suffers it through. For on Him sin had no claim. Because of Jesus’ taking it, sin can no more make claim on us. We are liberated from its claim and dominion, its death that we willed with our sin.

The smile that Jesus shared with Peter over the little kingdoms of this world He shares with us over all that would destroy us: sin, death, Satan, and hell. From their dominion we are free, kings, priests, a holy nation, God’s own people in the life that is always onward and more, without end. The rock of certainty is Christ. Even in our last glimpse of Peter, we see him still getting things wrong. He wanted to check out what our Lord had in store for John. Jesus gives him a friend’s straight answer, “That is not your business. Your business is discipleship. Follow Me.” Peter followed. Jesus had told him of the death with which he would glorify God.

Tradition tells that Peter never heard a cock crow without tears and that when they came to crucify him he asked for the upside down way of doing it, for he was not worthy to be crucified as his Lord in His crucifixion, the rock, the Calvary rock against which little Nero, nor sin nor death, nor the gates of hell can prevail. Peter confessed the Rock. He often slipped from the Rock, but the Rock carried him through. Lord Jesus, rock us too. Amen.

Norman Nagel, “Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel”, pages 276-277

So, God, Where’s My Stuff?

Can we always know what is good or not good for building us up in stature for our salvation? Of course not. The confession that our heavenly Father knows better than we is basic to all rightful prayer. If you ask Christians, “Are you wiser than God?” they will, of course, say no, but if each of us will examine our prayer life, we will surely see how often we speak to God as if we know better than He. We become impatient and grumble when God doesn’t jump to it and do as we tell Him. But someone will object, “Hasn’t God promised to hear our prayer and give us everything for which we ask?” That is true, so long as it is asked in Jesus’ name. As we might say, that is the catch. Is that just a loophole for God? Not so! God would not be our loving heavenly Father if He gave us everything that we wanted, just as those are pretty poor parents who give their children everything they want.

God loves us too much to give us everything we want. He draws a boundary around the things that He promises to give us in answer to our prayer. That boundary is His love. So often God’s curse is His letting people have just what they want. That is the way people get to hell. God says, “Well, if you insist on cutting yourself off from Me and going full speed to hell, you shall have it your way.” If we deliberately shut God our of our life, God finally says, “All right, you shall have it as you want it.” Because God is our loving heavenly Father, He restricts His promise to those things that are for our good, which draw us close to our Savior, in whose name alone we pray aright. As our mind and wishes come more and more into line with our Father’s mind and wishes, we shall more fully pray in the name of Jesus. As we learn to pray in the manner of Christ, we shall learn of Him to say, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

Yet even when our Father, out of love, refuses to give us that particular thing for which we may be foolishly asking, our prayer is not unanswered. The heart of our prayer is always granted us. Take the old example of little William asking Mother for a sharp knife. The heart of the child’s request is that he may have fun playing with the knife. Mother refuses to give little William the knife, yet by doing that, she grants the heart of little William’s prayer. Young William thought he would be happier playing with the knife. Mother knew he would be happier not playing with it. The happiness of William has been granted, though he may pout for an hour and think his mother most hard and unloving. So also our Father in heaven deals with us as His children, who so often ask for foolish and hurtful things.

It does not follow from this that we ought not to ask for particular things. We should have no desire about which we are ashamed to tell our Father. He is pleased with us when we speak to him as dear children speak to their dear Father, even if it is about a new pair of shoes or the tomato plants, but always with the confession, “Lord, You know only too well what a foolish person I am and how apt I am to ask for hurtful and selfish things. To me it would seem that these things would be good for me and my neighbor, but I will leave it all up to You.” Not my will, but Thine be done. We will learn to pray, “Lord, teach me to serve Thee with all I am and have” instead of a prayer that goes no further than “Lord, give me more money.” In the perfect prayer our Savior taught us, there is only one petition for earthly things. We need them for a while and are glad and grateful for them, but the whole weight of prayer is in the things that last for good, that work our salvation, the things our Savior came to accomplish.

For these we can ask without condition. God has to grant them to us. He has promised, and God is faithful. Claiming Jesus’ blood and merit, God has to forgive us our sins. that certainty is “in Jesus’ name.” We can hold God to His promise. That, however, means that we trust His promise. We may never complain of our prayer not being heard if we pray with a hit-or-miss attitude that says, “I don’t know whether it will do any good, but I don’t suppose it can do any harm either, so I may as well give it a go.” this is insulting to God because not taking God at His word entertains the possibility that God is a liar. Thus all our prayers must be with confidence. We must take god at His word: “There hath not failed one word of all His good promise” (1 Kings 8:56). When we pray for our salvation for Jesus’ sake, God has to give it to us. When we pray for earthly things, we tell our Father what we would like and are confident that He will give it to us. If it is for our good and He does not grant it just when and how we like, we know that He gives us what is better for us. The heart of our prayer, our sure good, is always granted. We confess, “Lord, Thou knowest best, and we trust Thy promise to hear our prayer.”

– Norman Nagel, Sermon for Easter 6

Nagel: Not I, But Christ

This passing through death to life with Christ is not something that happens once in the Christian’s life at Baptism. Daily the Christian relives the Baptism experience of passing through death to life with Christ. St. Paul, our example, says, “I die daily.” Every day is soil in which to plant the seed that is yourself. So hate everything that separates you from God, whether it be some earthly thing or some part of yourself. That must die. Everything that imprisons you in this worldly life must perish. If you love what you call your life – “my life is my own” sort of thing – then you have no part in the life that is eternal within the love of God. You are unplanted seed. But if you surrender this earthbound life, if you plant the seed, if you die, make an end of self, confess, “Not I, but Christ,” then you shall have life. Then I as a seed must die, cease to be what I am, so I may become new and alive and bearing much fruit.

What is this new full, fruitful life? It is being bound to Christ, serving Him, following Him so where He is, you are and where you live, He lives. By faith what Jesus did becomes yours. His dying is counted for your dying, His rising, your rising. Life is not w hat I have done, what I am doing, what I shall do. Not I, but Christ. What Christ has done is the glory of Christians. They show forth what Christ has done for them and now does in them. The life Christians live is the life of Christ. The life they live in the flesh is not anymore their own life but Christ’s life in them. Their life and the life of Christ are so closely bound that their joy are Christ’s joy and their sufferings are Christ’s.

– Norman Nagel, Sermon for Palm Sunday (1951)

How ‘Bout Some Sanctification?

To say firstfruits means there are more gifts to follow. With every gift, God pushes our hands wider open to receive a still larger gift. The bother with us is that we often hold our hands open just enough for little gifts in fear that if the gifts get too big they may overwhelm us. The gifts may begin to take us over, and we may not be able to manage them.

This is a genuine danger, for that is the way of gifts. You know how uneasy you get if somebody gives you lots of gifts – and rather big ones too. This uneasiness is born of our habit of doing deals. Before God it is completely out of place. We can only have such an uneasiness before God if we are still thinking of doing a deal with Him. That we nevertheless have such uneasiness is betrayed by our notions of not letting our religion go too far, not too much Word of God, not church every Sunday, or not devotions every day. Some parts of our lives we simply must keep under our own control. To the extent that we still negotiate terms with God, we are setting ourselves up for a fearful crash. The God that can be negotiated with does not exist. If that is the one with whom we think we do business, our end is darkness.

As we live as the children of the Father of lights, the giver God, He will keep on pouring out His gifts, and they will overwhelm us more and more. The Epistle of James is mostly about what God’s gifts do to us, how they work out in our lives. Nothing remote or beyond the bright blue sky about this. The gifts shape how you use your tongue, how you treat widows and orphans, the hungry, people with money, people you employ. James points out that if you think your religion is just a good deal you have done with God for yourself, you have had it.

But in James 1, we get the starting point: The giver God, from whom comes every good and every perfect gift, has made us His children with His word of truth. As God  pours the gifts, with each fresh gift, He gives us another nudge, “Come on, join in My game. Help Me give My gifts away.” God’s children play the game their Father’s way. To everybody else, to the deal-doers, it looks crazy, but, in fact, it is the best fun in all the world.

With hands held wide to Him for His gifts, we will be moved and shaped by those gifts forward from firstfruits to the final joyful harvest. When we shall “sing unto the Lord a new song; for He hath done marvelous things” (Psalm 98:1).

Norman Nagel, Sermon for Easter 5 (1967) in “Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel“, pages 136-137